Bot retailers must educate to shape ripe consumer market

Home and office robotics are poised to soar, but consumers need a push. Savvy retailers can shape the market and guide customer behavior through education.

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According to a report released last month by The Institution of Engineering and Technology, a majority of the U.K. public isn't sure whether robots will improve their basic quality of life. Based on a survey of 2,023 adults, the report found that less than one-third of respondents (29 percent) would consider using a robot for basic everyday tasks like cooking, cleaning, and dispensing medicines.

Early cell phone abstainers had similar apprehensions. Now most of them are too busy playing Candy Crush and picking rhinestones for their Miss Ambra cases to respond to a poll like the one IET conducted. That dizzying shift is worth considering in the context of consumer robotics.

When the American Association for Public Opinion Research did a survey on cell phone ownership in 2000, 28.3 percent of respondents reported owning one or more of the devices. By 2005 the share of cell phone-owning adults in the U.S. had soared to 68.7 percent.

Using the adoption patterns of one technology to predict the rise of another is fraught with complications (and invites swift push back in the comments), but it's an important reminder that paradigms -- and consumer values -- can shift almost overnight. And it's not a stretch to say that consumer robotics is poised to take off in a big way. A recent Business Insider Intelligence report predicts that the consumer robotics market will grow at 17 percent CAGR between 2014 and 2019, when it will be worth $1.5 billion.

Consider that prediction alongside the consumer skepticism illustrated by the IET report. The two realities aren't incongruous. Consumers will eventually come around to robots in the home and office, and for smart retailers, there's a tremendous opportunity to influence both how they'll come around and what shape the future market will take. Engaging consumers is important, but the key for retailers is education.

Photo courtesy of wellbots.com

That's the approach the founders of Wellbots.com have taken. The smart technology retailer sells robots, home automation, personal care and connected devices, and 3D printers. Along with being a technology marketplace, Wellbots.com, which is still in its startup phase, is positioning itself as a resource center for consumers curious about smart technology.

"We have put a big emphasis on educating customers," says David Prochaska, head of marketing for the company. "We do that through our blog and through the in-depth explanations and robust supporting documents we offer on most of the products we sell. We're really taking a branded content approach. We want to engage customers by providing information they'll find useful."

Smart technology is changing so fast, Prochaska says, that it's hard for consumers to know what kinds of products are even available. Without much of a frame of reference, it's difficult to decide if a robot vacuum is something you should invest in, to say nothing of which robot vacuum would best suit your needs.

Wellbots.com's answer is to give customers all the info they need to make an informed choice. A blog post from last year covers the kinds of floors that robot vacuums work with, what sort of setup to expect with a new product, and whether pets will interact well with the autonomous devices. When you click on a product link to the Deebot D77 Robot Vacuum from Ecovacs, you're given an attractively-laid out product description with a clear rundown of the vacuum's key features and best uses.

robotshop.jpg
Photo courtesy of robotshop.com

Robotshop.com, one of the most established online bot retailers, has put a similar emphasis on education. Through its YouTube channel, tutorials, and blog, the company is hoping to show customers what's out there and to illustrate what all this emerging hardware can do for them. It's hard to spend time on either site without discovering some new device, and with plenty of information available, it's easy to fall into the kind of unguided but highly-engaged surfing familiar to any avid Wikipedia user.

That's exactly how first-adopters are going to stumble across new home robot technology.

"We've got to lay the groundwork now to inform customers," says Prochaska. "I work here, and I still catch myself intrigued by some new product we offer, some cool gadget I've never seen or heard of before."

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